Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Vivien Leigh and meaning in motion

It has been recognised that the secret power of the writing of William Shakespeare lies in his sense of things moving and transforming.

I have a similar sense in watching some of the films of one of our finest screen actresses, Vivien Leigh.   Many believe that her enduring, dramatic power in films "Gone with the Wind" and "Lady Hamilton" is the result of her stunning wardrobe, hairstyles and make up.

This is simply not true. Her power comes from her growth in skill as an actress, from her powerful ambition to be appreciated as an actress, rather than as "a beauty". In her early films, in the late 30s, before her RADA trained acting ability was fully developed, Vivien Leigh was at her most more beautiful but she clearly lacked the depth and power of her major roles. She was "static" in character, perfectly attired, but unable to express or impress.

In Alexander Kordas "Fire Over London", another Spanish actress, less perfect in feature, is clearly far more able to speak to the heart and to the camera than Leigh, who by comparison seems vapid, lightweight and rather unattractively self centred. I did not care what she felt even in the arms of Laurence Olivier. Indeed, it is not surprising her next film was a frothy comedy "Storm in a Teacup" and she was cast alongside Rex Harrison, who stole the show.

What turned a rather vapid, pretty ingenue into weighty, powerful Vivien Leigh?

I believe this was her discovery of "beauty in movement". She developed a skill in making the fluctuations of the soul apparent, its fears and sadnesses. Through rapidly changing and expressive features, fast changes of mood, through the light and dark of passing passions, she learnt to embody something about most, if not all of us.  Of course, she could play any kind of role,  even sweet characters.  After the selfishness passions of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind, she perfectly plays a honest and innocent ballerina in Waterloo Bridge (1940).  Leigh felt strongly that strong women should also have and be able to show their vulnerability - because we are all vulnerable.

She said in an interview in the 1960s with Kenneth Tynan, who discourteously suggested that her dramatic power lay just her physical attractiveness, that she never played just to men, who, she says "are not that important", but to women and children. Additionally, her films are "fantasies" but fantasies with truth in them. Since she tends to play strong adulterous women, what she meant is that the feelings she expresses are "truthful". All of us have felt the movements of the fluctuating and sometimes "fainting" soul, whether or not we have acted on its impulses.

Kenneth Tynan had not viewed, as we can on "YouTube", the developing skills of an actress. When he asked her "What makes the difference between a great screen actress and an ordinary one", I believe Leigh was honest. She says it is about "invisibility". The audience sees "something special" but cannot work out how it is achieved.  Now, I know how it was achieved.

Fundamental to it was her ability to learn from others more skilled than she was and to "move".

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